Posts

A natural arc of red stone in front of a sprawling vista.

Passover Reflections on Moab

I’ve been back to BostoA vista of the red rocks of Moab.n for a couple weeks but there are images from Utah that I’m carrying close through this cold and grey New England spring.  Not really images, more like colors: white snow, blue sky, and green trees…. And then there’s the red.

We took a couple of days while two of our children visited Park City and made the drive to Southeastern Utah to visit Moab and its famous geologic wonders and national parks. Its red earth reflected the sun, mesmerizing us as canyon walls turned orange at times and at others,  maroon under a passing shower. We drove past geology that twisted into spires, spun arches, and bore canyons. We hiked and scampered and climbed like little children,  the silty red dust rising on our calves and sneaking into our shoes, caking even, under my fingernails.  We shed layers of clothing in the warm sun and when it set we luxuriated under the full moon. Moab was magnificent and if we could have stayed longer, we would have.  There was so much to see, to do. And even as I felt the pull to stay, there was satisfaction in just having made the trip.  It had been a crazy idea thrown out during dinner early in the week, heralding the type of enthusiasm on a Monday I expected to fizzle very easily by Thursday.

We drove back to Park City and then Salt Lake where people boarded planes, returning to school or on business trips. When my month in Utah was complete, I returned to Boston for a writing conference and getting back in the swing of real life.  Looking forward to Passover and in preparation for our Seder, I considered the significance of Moab in the Exodus story.  I should mention giving sites biblical names is common in Utah, as Mormons see themselves akin to Jews.  Not just because they believe themselves to be descendants of Ephraim (a son of Joseph), but in that their history of persecution and long search for a promised land mirrored the Jews’ wandering in the desert for forty years. And not only is there a Great Salt Lake in Utah similar to the Dead Sea, there’s an Eden and Zion National Park, a Jordan River and a Mt Carmel, …. So what was it about Moab that was nagging at me?

Interestingly, the word “Moab” is defined as either “of the father” or a “beautiful place.” BeFamily walking through the red rocks of Moab.sides being the birthplace of Ruth (one of my biblical heroines), it is also the last bit of wilderness where the Israelites stayed before entering the Promised Land. It is where Moses’ Exodus story ended, where he died and was buried, never able to enter Canaan himself.

Our touring party of four hadn’t recalled much of Moab, Utah’s namesake before making the trip from Park City. Thinking about it in light of our Passover tradition, however, I can’t help search for meaning.  Moab was the last place we would be together before going in four separate directions. It was a place we would observe a yarzheit, a place we would experience the super moon on the vernal equinox.  We all felt the pull to drive down there, I won’t go as far as calling it magnetic, but we were certainly on a mission. And I can’t forget that red, primitive earth, harkening the name Edom, evoking the birthplace of man.

For us, it was a moment when we united and regrouped before moving on. It was a place where we were allowed to act like children before entering the adult world again. It was a place to wonder and dream and remember, and also to recognize how small we are and how short life is.  It was a place of awe.

The Camino de Santiago- A Modern Pilgrimage

In theory, the medieval pilgrimage routes of Europe shouldn’t have held any special allure for me. “It’s such a Christian thing,” several people commented when I told them about our travel plans. I am a 53-year-old Jew, but I am also a lover of the outdoors, of physical challenge, and of meditation. John and I wanted a taste, so we chose a relatively short section, 210km, 10 days, on the Camino de Santiago, a thousand mile and thousand year old migratory path that culminates in Santiago de Compostela, Spain with an emotional mass held in its ornate cathedral.

After attending the high mass (yes, the mass…) with Catholic rites and flair galore, my husband and I found ourselves roaming city streets in search of Jerusalem street, the center of the Jewish quarter that existed before the Inquisition. Where did our people fit in? We were migratory, we were spiritual, where were the monuments to Jews along this meditative way? All we found on the crooked alleyway was a bookstore with Judaica in its window (closed for midafternoon siesta). Still it was something, albeit small, but in a prominent location only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral.

The next morning, we flew to Marrakech, arriving at our riad in the Medina as the call to prayer was sounding. Traveling from the height of Christendom to a Muslim land was jarring. Still yearning for something of the Jewish diaspora, we visited the Synagogue of Marrakech, dating from 1492 – a year ingrained in any American schoolgirl’s head as the year when Columbus sailed the ocean blue… but it was also fourteen years after Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand began extinguishing Jews during the Spanish Inquisition.

Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled to North Africa, the synagogue opening in Marrakech marked that Sephardic migration. I flashed back to my 7th grade French teacher, a Jew from Morocco – meeting her as a privileged, white, suburban kid in the 1970’s made an impact that has lasted to this day. Back then there was nothing more exotic to me than a French-speaking female Jew from Africa of all places. Who knew?

Over forty years later I was traveling to her homeland to hike into the High Atlas mountains. Our local guide pointed out the remains of various synagogues tucked away in small villages. Many of North Africa’s Jews were Berbers, living in these remote places. Morocco has always prided itself on being a pluralistic country, but when it achieved its independence from France in 1956, many of its Jews fled to Israel and elsewhere fearing inhospitable rule.

It wasn’t until I was sitting on the plane, writing down thoughts on the way back to North America, that I mused on our walk along the Camino followed by a journey to Morocco mirroring the migratory pattern of Jews over hundreds of years…. Walking, not toward a religious ceremony, but because they were chased out, first from Spain and Portugal and later from various North African countries.

Similar to Christianity, Islam places pilgrimage as one of its central pillars. Every year, 2-3 million Muslims make a Hajj (a word interestingly sharing the same root as the Hebrew word “chagag” meaning to make a pilgrimage) to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This happens during a five-day period, starting on 8 and ending on 12 Dhu al-Hijjah, the twelfth and last month of the Islamic calendar. It is required that Muslims make this journey once in a lifetime. Their pilgrimage is a demonstration of Muslim solidarity as well as an opportunity to shed material trappings, to focus on self over outward appearance. Shedding material trappings, and self-introspection was also what John and I had endeavored on the Camino.

While we walked, John and I wondered what the Jewish version of a pilgrimage would be. Before the destruction of the Temple, the Hebrew Bible commanded Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times per year: in the spring during Passover, in the summer during Shavuot, and in the fall during Sukkot. There is not a specific trail prescribed, just a returning. Next year in Jerusalem!

We googled and researched in the evening after walking. We discovered the ancient road of Abraham, called the Abraham Path, thinking it might represent the Jewish equivalent of the Camino – but such a journey seemed unrealistic in today’s political climate. It stretches from Urfa in Turkey to Hebron in the West Bank, spreading over thousands of kilometers through Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.

Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the Jews sanctifying time over place. We worship in our homes, not in ornate churches. Shabbat is our cathedral – it exists anywhere – and is marked by time and the lighting of candles, not architecture. It is the Jew’s responsibility to treat time as sacred as opposed to places. Maybe he would have told us that our most important pilgrimage isn’t through tangible geography with a large building our stadium as the end-point, but through time. Below I have copied one of my favorite poems from the Jewish liturgy which is of the same spirit:

Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps to wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness –
And often back again;
From health to sickness
And back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding –
From fear to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat –
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination;
And life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage to life everlasting.

I found a poem called “Pilgrim’s Prayer” on a postcard in one of the churches along the Camino. It asks the question: what good is a pilgrimage if you don’t bring its teachings home? It reminded me of the Jewish text in Isaiah that we read each year during Yom Kippur, “Is this the fast I desire?” asking (and I paraphrase): What is the point of a fast if you are only going to take your discomfort out on other people? A proper fast should unlock the fetters of wickedness, untie the cords of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free. During a proper fast, one should share one’s bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into one’s home; upon seeing the naked, clothe them, and not ignore one’s own kin.

Pilgrim’s Prayer
By Fraydino
Although I may have travelled all the roads
Crossed mountains and valleys from East to West,
If I have not discovered the freedom to be myself,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have shared all my possessions
With people of other languages and cultures;
Made friends with pilgrims of a thousand paths,
Or shared albergue with saints and princes,
If I am not capable of forgiving my neighbor tomorrow,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have carried my pack from beginning to end
And waited for every Pilgrim in need of encouragement,
Or given my bed to one who arrived later than I,
Given my bottle of water in exchange for nothing;
If upon returning to my home and work,
I am not able to create brotherhood
Or to make happiness, peace and unity,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have had food and water each day,
And enjoyed a roof and shower every night;
Or may have had my injuries well attended,
If I have not discovered in all that, the love of God,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have seen all the monuments
And contemplated the best sunsets;
Although I may have learned a greeting in every language
Or tasted the clean water from every fountain;
If I have not discovered who is the author
Of so much free beauty and so much peace,
I have arrived nowhere.
If from today I do not continue walking on your path,
Searching and living according to what I have learned;
If from today I do not see in every person, friend or foe
A companion on the Camino;
If from today I cannot recognize God,
As the one God of my life,
I have arrived nowhere.

I have learned that whether through foreign lands or through my time on earth, I am always on a pilgrimage. I might not be lacing up the hiking boots every morning, but all I can do is put one foot in front of the other, be my strongest, and help fellow souls along the way.

in preparation of passover

In Preparation for Passover

We hosted our first Seder as newlyweds in Cincinnati with other transplant friends, and later in our walk-up on Hancock Street in Boston when our kids were little. On Hancock Street, we’d gather snugly around a dining-room table (which now serves as a kitchen table in our current home). I recall those evenings as harbingers of spring, sunlight angling through sooty, city windows, shining on the yellow daffodils I’d purchased at the grocery store. My little girl in a white short-sleeved dress and patent leather shoes – I hadn’t fully committed to Judaism and the décor was some version of Easter.

If there is any one tradition or holiday that sold me on the Jewish religion, it was Passover. I have the fondest memories of being dazzled by the Oelbaum’s Seder as a young girl. Again, John and I were invited to the Meisel’s Seders in Cincinnati where I aspired to ever having a family that would interact with such passion.

By 2004,  I’d converted, the kids were on their way to becoming bar and bat mitzvah, and we moved to Chestnut Street. While John and the kids may have been excited about other characteristics of our new home, like a big TV in the family room, or a bedroom of their own, I fell in love with the dining room and a long table that would become an altar every Friday night. I had visions of progeny around that table every Passover.

Preparing for Passover is the beginning of the spiritual journey.

I reflect on all the Jewish women making pesach in their homes as I do in my mine – cleaning, weeding out, preparing for renewal. I also think of all of the women over the past three thousand years who’ve prepared in similar ways right at this point in the calendar. Our conveniences and techniques are different, but we are connected by the desire to sanctify our homes, transforming our dining rooms into holy places.

I also recognize non-Jews who strive for the same harmony in their homes, a holiness stemming from love of family and raising children. As mothers and hostesses, keepers of an unspoken, domestic religion, we all share a generosity of spirit and sustenance.

On the morning of the Seder, with the air rich with hyacinth, I billow a crisply starched, white tablecloth over the dining room table, and honor my matrilineage. The linen napkins were passed down from my maternal grandmother, my namesake, Jeanne Wilmarth Hallenbeck, a women who passed away when I was two but who I’ve heard scores of stories about from my mother. I have a black and white photograph portrait of her framed on a small pantry counter just outside the dining room. She is holding a bouquet,  the maid of honor at her sister’s wedding. I imagine her very social era of luncheons, teas, and dinners when it was common to have several sets of placemats, dinner napkins, and luncheon napkins all with embroidered monograms. Receiving them myself as a young bride, I was afraid to use them for fear of staining. Now, they are a tactile way to remember. Like a black and white Mona Lisa, she radiates an approving smile from her photographed face.

The silver candelabras are from my mother and were wedding gifts from her grandparents. Before everyone sits, I will light their six candles before blessing the festival lights:

Baruhk ata Adonai, Eloheinu melecholam. Asher kidshanu bar mitzvah tov, vitzi vanu l”hadlik ner shel Yom Tov.

May it be Your will, God of our ancestors, that You grant my family and all Israel a good and long life. Remember us with blessings and kindness; fill our homes with your Divine Presence. Give me the opportunity to raise my children and grandchildren to be truly wise, lovers of God, people of truth, who illuminate the world with Torah, good deeds and the work of the Creator. Please hear my prayer at this time. Regard me as a worthy descendant of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, our mothers, and let my candles burn and never be extinguished. Let the light of your face shine upon us. Amen.

“Regard me as a worthy descendant” – those words echo in my mind as I open my silverware drawer. For a large crowd, I need both my wedding silver, given lovingly by many older relatives, as well as my mother’s silver, which had been passed down from her grandmother. As I squeeze together enough place settings, I smile at how large our Seder has become.

I open the cabinet holding the special crystal wine goblets. They are Victorian in shape, etched with spring-like floral patterns – they are from John’s great aunts, Lillian, Bella, and Sophie, and his grandmother Rose. These women posed a funny foursome. Lillian, Bella, and Sophie were conservative Jews and very religious. They were old spinsters, living together in Philadelphia and later in Miami Beach, keeping kosher homes. By the time John and I married, Sophie was the only one of the four alive. We visited her in Miami often, and when she heard we were keeping a Jewish home and hosting Passover, she was so delighted she gave us her Seder plate, which she had purchased with her sisters on a trip to Israel.

I set the table with white, gold-rimmed dishes John’s father presented to us in honor of our new home. It seemed as if it had been crated for years. They are from Czechlosavakia had been received by his mother, Rose, as a wedding present from her groom’s family in Europe. I picture her an excited, beaming bride, receiving such an extravagant gift on her embarkation to adult life. Arthur’s eyes tear at the sight of what was once familiar. It’s like having his mother there with us. I know how he feels.

Our Seder table is a living, expanding, combination of the old and the new. There is a silver Kiddush cup I bought John in honor of our new home, and the silver pitchers I bought for the hand washing not long after. There are the colorful Afikomen covers the kids made in Sunday school. Even in their crudeness, I use them as a reminder of how far we have come, both spiritually and physically as a family.

John leads the Seder thoughtfully and deliberately, working from a new Haggadah edited by Jonothan Safran Foer, a writer I very much admire. We upgraded just last year from a more juvenile, story-book version, which had been an upgrade from the days when we photocopied one very traditional version and felt bound by its structure, and cheapened by the flimsy, tearing pages.

When I put the finishing touches on the table, the toys symbolizing the ten plagues, a wine glass for Elijah, a water glass for Miriam, salt water for dipping, I am filled with gratitude. How blessed I am to have a family and friends who want to gather and create a magical evening filled with stories and questions and debate and song. How blessed I am to have children to pass these napkins down to, these dishes, this silver.

The Passover Seder is a telling – the passing down of a story, a story of a people once enslaved and now free, a celebration of our ability to move and act in the world, a story not only of a people, but now my people. Tonight our connection to our ancestors won’t just be spoken, but demonstrated at this table, my altar is a tribute to our mothers past.

John has grown into his role as masterful leader of the Seder. He sends out questions to our guests ahead of time, a custom adopted from Nancy Meisel in Cincinnati. The question is the prompt for meaningful conversation after we’ve had our four glasses of wine, after we’ve told the story four ways and four times, and after we’ve shared the symbolic food on the Seder plate.

Every year John works hard to come up with a perfect, though-provoking question.

Questions in the past have ranged from the basic: if you were leaving Israel, what would you take (akin to if your house was burning and you had to leave in a hurry, what would you take with you?) What are your basics? What are you a slave to? Who is your Pharoah? What is your Egypt? What song exemplifies freedom to you? (That was actually a huge hit and really fun) There is always a lively family group chat in the weeks preceding – with the kids wondering what the question will be this year?

One Passover tradition is to welcome newcomers or strangers, people who don’t have another place to go. Sometimes I worry our first-time guests won’t know what they are stepping into. They may be surprised or intimidated by the question, what do they think when they receive John’s email? Our regulars are a little crazy. There is my young nephew who spews wisdom beyond his years like a prophet, the personification of Elijah himself. We sing and Charlie accompanies on the piano, there is laughter and heated debate. It starts early and goes really late and there is a lot to eat.

This year we will be hosting twenty-one. That old dining-room table / now kitchen table will serve as the extension to our dining room table. Our Seder will be on Friday, April 6, not on the traditional night, but on the Shabbat at the end of the 8-day holiday so we can get everybody home. April 6 is the Sabbath and my mother’s birthday. She would have been 75. I will light a candle for her and one for John’s mother, Mary, her yartzeit being just 5 days later. Their light will shine even more so at our table.

home for the holidays

Home for the Holidays: Parenting in the College Years

img_2341

My last two blog posts covered far-reaching trips I’ve recently taken to Africa and South America.  When people asked me what our plans were for this holiday season,  I think they were expecting a more exotic reply, but I was happy to answer, “A good ‘ol family staycation…”  The two kids that are still in college requested that we don’t go anywhere this year, and John and I were more than happy to oblige.

The lack of plans allowed them to spend time with high school friends as well as for us to visit with other families in Boston.  Yes there are dentist appointments in the mix,….  but here are some highlights of our staycation:

·      Home cookin’…..  after months at college, the kiddoes are craving family classics

·      Lighting our menorah – first time in a long time kids are home for all nights of Hanukah

·      Shabbat dinners – Jack, our son in the workforce and Emily, his girlfriend, will be able to join us on 12/30!

·      Fires in the fireplace

·      Chinese Food (when we’re not home cookin’)

·      Family squash /yoga / soul cycle

·      Going to the movies – “Lalaland” was great, next up “Office Christmas Party” and “Star Wars”

·      Playing hearts at the kitchen table

·      Rocking to The Roots at the House of Blues

·      Going to the TD Garden to watch the Celtics and the Bruins

Best of all, time for reading – I’m reading Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh – which I am loving.  Jennifer will be joining our book group for a special dinner party in early January !!

…AND writing!  I set a goal of finishing a manuscript by the end of 2016 and I’ll be damned, with some late nights, I am going to make it!  So after you wet your appetite with EDEN, you shouldn’t have to wait too long….

If you are enjoying your own staycation this week, I would love to hear your highlights…

Melody Beatty’s daily meditation in Journey to the Heart for December 26 gets to the core of it:

 

We search for sacred spaces, spiritual

experiences, and truths.  But the holiest

places are often found when we spend

time with people we love.

May your home be the sanctuary you crave.

Love and Peace in 2017

daughter-in-law-hood

Daughter-in-law-hood

Have you read the Book of Ruth? Ruth is the ultimate daughter-in-law in the Jewish Bible. Even after her husband dies, Ruth remains with her mother-in-law, Naomi, refusing the request that she return to her own people. Ruth adopts Naomi’s religion and travels with her to the land of Judah. Ruth and Naomi have a special bond of friendship. Ruth is depicted as the first convert to Judaism in the bible and interestingly, it is from her line that David, the great king is descended.

A convert to Judaism myself, I feel a connection to Ruth. Not only is she the first convert, but a revered and important figure in the history of the Jewish people. To me, the story of Ruth is a testament to Jews always welcoming converts and was partly responsible for me publicly owning my new religion.

Besides being a convert, Ruth is a true friend and source of support for Naomi, her mother-in-law. In Eden, Ruth is the consummate daughter in law to Sadie. She stays by Sadie’s side even after Robert dies, and coincidentally it is her son that is the family’s financial savior, purchasing the home, and keeping it in the family.

Being a daughter-in-law to people who have no daughters of their own, I also feel that connection to Ruth. In my case, it was not my mother-in-law who leaned in me for support, it’s been my father-in-law. I am his surrogate daughter. Even in this modern age, when my husband is willing to pitch in on an equal basis, there are things his father just feels more comfortable coming to me for. Is it because I am a woman? Because I am more comfortable talking about emotions and relationships? Because we share the vocation of writing? Because he just assumes I’m more available to help with domestic and medical matters? We have a friendship and share points of view that are not shared by my husband.

Being a daughter or son-in-law, is often a delicate dance. I certainly stumbled and mis-stepped in the beginning, but figuring it out, and disproving the caricature of in-law as “out-law” has resulted in one of my most satisfying relationships.

Matriarchy

Matriarchy

During my lifetime, the closest thing my family has had to a matriarch was my grandmother, not in the fact that she “ruled” our family but she lived until she was 96, was elegant and stately and was greatly admired by the generations that came after. She was my father’s mother, and come to think of it, she probably was the only one who could influence his thinking with a subtle nod of approval or disapproval.

The first matriarch of the Meister family in my novel, EDEN, is Sadie (Sarah). In the book of Genesis, Sarah, wife of Abraham, was also the first matriarch. Sarah was venerable and beautiful, and it is from her that all Israel is descended. But in true Old Testament fashion, Sarah is also depicted as an imperfect human. It is said that Sarah was a prophetess and knew the way things should play out, but when she insisted Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael to the wilderness, it probably wasn’t her finest hour. One can just imagine her in a jealous snit, putting her foot down with Abraham. The subsequent matriarchs in the book of Genesis are Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah who go on to birth a nation despite their human frailties.

It has always been comforting to me to study Genesis in that it emphasizes that the holiest figures in the Jewish religion are just regular, imperfect, people. And although the book is not without its patriarchs, it is first and foremost a book of matriarchs. The insights of its wives, mothers, and midwives, who often made things happen behind the scenes are responsible for the flourishing of the Jewish people. In addition, the book’s themes of familial struggle, including sibling rivalry, jealousy, and rebelliousness are those that we recognize in our own families today. And although, it is sort of discouraging to think that humans have had the same weaknesses and relationship issues for ages, I find it a consolation.

Patterns in families repeat themselves, in Genesis as well as in real life. The pattern of unplanned pregnancy repeats itself for three generations in the Meister family of my novel. A wise matriarch once said that one shouldn’t be defined by the surprises in her life, but by the way she responds to those surprises. So, possibly, as we evolve as people and as mothers of a people, may we learn from history and try to do a little bit better in our lifetime.